Boom! The Pre-COP 21 (Pre-Conference of Parties 21), in which some 70 officials from around the world met in Paris, has just concluded on a positive note rather than with the resounding cackle which has already been heard. The latter issued from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. The agreement, which will be delivered at the COP 21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held in the French capital from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, “will not be a legally binding treaty,” he stated in a Financial Times column. And the White House’s chief diplomat specified that there were “not going to be legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto.”
Anyone could see a brutal backlash coming given the history of the climate negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, and the Paris agreement that will take over in 2020, effectively allotted lower targets to wealthy countries for greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly all of the countries, led by the European Union, signed and ratified this document. The notable exception was the U.S., which only signed it. At the time, it is true that the Clinton administration did not have any chance of having it adopted by Congress, where it would have to have passed through the Republican camp, deemed hostile to any binding climate treaty. The U.S. justified this position at the time based on the fact that no reduction target was imposed on China.
Same cause, same effects? The Obama administration, for its part, has no elbow room in Congress. And though the Chinese side has now completely changed, finally setting a much-improved target on greenhouse gases set to reach an emissions peak in 2030, the Democrats don’t like the idea of starting another war on Capitol Hill, especially a little less than a year before the U.S. presidential election.
The India Problem
This time it’s India, whose commitment on greenhouse gas emissions is considered too low by the U.S. in particular, which could serve as the catalyst for hostilities in Congress. The White House has still not paid the $3 billion pledged to the Green Climate Fund. A pure product of the Conference of Parties, this fund is intended to help poor countries cope with the urgent impacts of climate change.
Considering all of these factors, Kerry’s position is, in the end, not very surprising. It nevertheless left Paris speechless. “This formulation could have been much better,” said Laurent Fabius, primarily anxious to see the U.S. follow through on the funds which, according to him, they are expected to provide. “We can discuss the legal form of the agreement … however, it is clear that it should include legally binding provisions, as expected from the mandate of the climate conference in Durban” in 2011, the foreign minister and future president of COP 21 warned on Thursday.
Paris expects the agreement to be “binding, or there will be no agreement,” insisted Francois Hollande for his part from Malta, where he was attending the EU-Africa summit. Meanwhile, the French leader stated that it was “absolutely legitimate” that the U.S. “has problems with their Congress.” The key for him is that the anticipated agreement ensures that commitments are kept and respected, notably through a mechanism of periodic review.
The statements issued on both sides of the Atlantic may amount to all fuss and no real effect. Washington may not be opposed to having to meet certain constraints on greenhouse gas emissions. But it sees this as being done only through regulation and not on the basis of the national contributions that about 160 countries are making to the United Nations. This option will still be on the table. “What we support is in fact a partly legally-binding agreement,” explained a senior U.S. official this week.